Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Communicating with the Capitol: Know Who You're Talking To

Congressional staffers have told us repeatedly how much it drives them nuts when advocates come into meetings and ask them to support a bill their boss has already co-sponsored.  When this or something similar happens, they say they often tune out because the advocate seems uninformed and couldn’t even take the time to do some basic research.  If you want your meeting to be effective, you need to put in a little work ahead of time.  I know you’re busy, so I’m not saying you need to go read the books they’ve written or all their past speeches or anything, but there are a few things you should do before your meetings to make sure you are well-prepared.  Trust me, staffers remember the meetings they have with informed constituents.  Here are some quick tips.

  • Read the member’s bio:  This takes at most 10 minutes.  Understanding where they come from and how they got into politics can provide great opportunities for you to personally connect with the office.  Say, for instance, you are a small business owner and as you’re reading your Senator’s bio, you find out that she worked for a small business for years before running for the Senate.  That would be a great way to connect with the office early on.  The more connecting lines you can draw, the more likely you are to be remembered. 
  • Know their issues:  Now that you’ve read the bio, it’s time to dig a little deeper.  Nearly all Members of Congress have either an “Issues” or “Legislation” tab or something similar where you can find out their priorities.  I know you are going to find this shocking, but most Members of Congress come to the Hill because they are truly passionate about an issue or two and they really want to make a difference with that issue.  They’re not all greedy, corrupt, power hungry Frank Underwood clones (at least not when they first get to DC).  You may just not always agree with the issues they’re passionate about.  If you can find ways to frame your asks around key issues they care about, they are far more likely to follow through and act on your issue.  Get creative here.  For instance, say one of their priority issues is education but you’re advocating for legislation to help caregivers for people with long-term disabilities.  Maybe you could demonstrate how improving caregiving allows people with disabilities to attain higher levels of education.  That’s just an example, but if on the surface your issue seems unrelated to their priorities, think outside the box a little and I’ll bet you can come up with some connection. 
  •  Figure out which committees they’re on:  Determining the committees and subcommittees a Member serves on can give you insight into some other issues their office focuses on.  If they serve as a chair or a ranking member on a committee, they likely have staff dedicated solely to that committee’s work.  If they are on a committee under which your issue falls, the staff is likely to be better informed about your issue, which in turn will better help you make your case.  If they’re not on a committee that relates to your issue, that by no means makes a meeting pointless, but it’s good to figure that information out ahead of time so you’re not blindsided if they say something like they work on your issue all the time in their committee. 
  •  Check out bills and votes:  As I mentioned earlier, one of the complaints we hear most often is that a Member of Congress will have already co-sponsored the bill you are asking them to co-sponsor.  If you are advocating for a specific piece of legislation, make sure you know who the co-sponsors are, what exactly the bill does, and why you support it.  Congress.gov provides useful brief bill summaries so you don’t have to go in and read the full text of the legislation.  If your Member of Congress has co-sponsored your bill, you can still go in and thank him or her.  This will again show the office that you are well-informed and will also demonstrate that you care about and are following the actions the Member is taking on your issue.

Doing your research ahead of time doesn’t have to take days, but it can mean the difference between seeing progress on your issue and having a staffer walk out of a meeting with you and never think about your issue again.  Show the Member or their staff why you care about your issue, but also show them why they should care too.

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